Retailers spend a lot of time, money and effort to entice you to buy merchandise in their stores. And salespeople are skilled at persuading undecided shoppers to open their wallets, even when they hadn't intended to.
That's part of a capitalist system and should be expected by any savvy shopper. But it doesn't mean consumers are powerless once they cross the retail store threshold.
Many tricks, tactics and strategies can lead to paying lower prices in the store or reaping better value from the money you spend.
Here are some examples:
Decipher price tags. Sometimes retailers use secret price codes. A glance at a price tag will tell you whether an item is truly on sale or clearance. For example, Costco Wholesale prices ending in .97 instead of .99 indicates a markdown, says personal finance guru Clark Howard, whose new book is "Clark Howard's Living Large for the Long Haul." At Target, prices ending in 9 are at full retail price, while prices ending in 8 or 6 are discounted but might be cut again. Those ending in 4 are the lowest they will get. At Sam's Club, a "C" means it's on clearance, and prices ending in the digit 1 signal the item is marked down below cost, Howard said. Similar systems are in effect for Home Depot, Gap, Old Navy, Sears and Office Depot, according to Lifehacker.com. As a general rule, a price ending in something other than 9 is a good sign.
Beware the accessory upsell. Smart shoppers research big-ticket purchases, such as a cellphone or television, but they can be tripped up by unexpected pitches for add-ons. Among the priciest are accessories. For example, computer printers usually don't come with a cable to attach to a computer. A friendly salesperson can remind you of this and sell you a $25 printer cord. Instead, stop at a dollar store on the way home and pick up a perfectly usable cord for a buck. Similarly, today's televisions are best used with an HDMI cord to hook to the cable or satellite box. Cables can cost $20 to $100 in-store. Skip that and go online to Monoprice.com or Amazon.com to find HDMI cables for about $5. Videophiles say there is no difference in picture and audio quality. With cellphones, the aftermarket cases and chargers will usually be far cheaper somewhere other than the electronics or wireless phone store. And when buying a new car, beware of the F&I, or finance and insurance, room. That's where they upsell you on such items as fabric and paint protection and extended warranties.
Warranties warranted? Extended warranties, more properly called service contracts, are another hard-sell upsell, especially on electronics and appliances. Personal finance experts and consumer advocates generally are not fans of buying them. They're almost pure profit for retailers. Many purchases are covered by the manufacturer for a period of time. And if you made the purchase on a credit card, the card may extend that warranty. For autos, service contracts are "a losing bet," says Consumer Reports. Because vehicles are so reliable nowadays, "the chance of needing extended warranty coverage just isn't as great as it used to be," it said. If you really want a service contract, be clear on what it covers. For some products, such as electronics, you might investigate third-party providers such as SquareTrade.com. The third-party automotive service contract industry has had reputation problems. One new company, ForeverCar.com, claims it has designed a more consumer-friendly service contract, based on transparency and simplicity.
Know a good price. Walking the aisles of a department store, you might be tempted by a product, but is the price competitive? If you own a smartphone, use it to check competitive prices at other retailers. Many stores will "price match," although policies differ widely and are loaded with fine-print exceptions. Cheapism.com reviewed the policies of eight major stores and rated those at Target, J.C. Penney and Lowe's as best. Regardless of the written policy, it's a good idea to ask whether a store will match a competitor's price. Many stores also offer "price protection," meaning if the retailer reduces the price on an item within a certain time frame, such as 30 days after purchase, the retailer will refund you the difference. Some stores combine the concepts of price matching and price protection by matching other stores' prices within a certain time after purchase.
Chat them up. Talk to salespeople and ask what discounts are available. For example, many restaurants and retailers have discounts for seniors but might not mention them for fear of offending. At thrift stores, ask clerks when they get overstock donations from retailers and when dry cleaners donate unclaimed garments. People who use dry cleaners usually have high-quality clothes that are cared for. Or simply ask a department store salesperson if an item is likely to go on sale soon.
Haggle. Part of talking to salespeople is to simply ask for a price break. Be nice and maintain your walk-away leverage. "When you ask for a discount, ask confidently like there is no reason in the world why your wish should not be granted," said Mark Di Vincenzo, author of the books "Buy Shoes on Wednesday and Tweet at 4:00" and "Buy Ketchup in May and Fly at Noon." You have more negotiating power if you're considering several purchases or can find flawed items or floor models for sale. Use phrases such as, "Is there any wiggle room in that price?" and "Gee, that's more than I wanted to spend." If you can't bargain down the price, ask for free throw-ins, such as home delivery of an appliance, clothing alterations and no-interest financing. At smaller retailers, offering to pay cash — allowing the merchant to avoid credit card transaction fees — might yield a discount, Di Vincenzo said.
Make a list. This isn't the most exciting advice, but making a list and sticking to it might be a tip that saves the most money. Retail stores are geared toward enticing customers to make impulse purchases, with in-store sights, sounds and even smells. It's why supermarkets place impulse-purchase items near the checkout to entice you, put high-profit items at eye level and store the milk in the back of the store, so you have to walk by tempting items. One reason to stray from a list is when you pick up the supermarket weekly sales flier, often in a rack at the entrance. Items on the front and back pages are often "loss leaders" selling at a great price and worth stocking up on if it's a product you'll use.
Shop late. Shop after 6 on the evening before an advertised sale begins. Some retailers program checkout registers the night before, so the sale price might come up at the register even if they have not put signs on the selling floor yet, according to a tip from the National Retail Federation. Also shop in the afternoon or later when buying shoes. Your feet will be more swollen that time of the day, and you won't waste money buying shoes that are too small.